Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Seminoles

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It wasn’t too long ago that an undefeated Notre Dame team was about to head into some of the most hostile territory in all of college football. A double-digit underdog for a primetime, ESPN game, many expected Brian Kelly’s flawed, but surprisingly undefeated squad to be no match for their opponent. Then the Irish pulled away in a tight game and beat Oklahoma 30-13.

Oklahoma wasn’t Florida State. But then again, this is a rivalry that saw Ty Willingham walk into Doak Campbell Stadium and shake down the thunder against Bobby Bowden.

Two drastically different data points are only issued to point out the fact that we really have no idea what will happen on Saturday evening, when both the Seminoles and the Irish face their stiffest test to date. The winner will likely take the inside track to one of four spots in the College Football Playoff. The loser will be forced to regroup and win a resume contest down the line.

But after a week of constant conversation — some of it even focusing on the battle on the field — one thing is sure: It’s time to play the football game.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for the game of the year between Notre Dame and Florida State.

 

Everett Golson wasn’t exactly Broadway Joe, but his declaration (and realization) should have Irish fans feeling better about Saturday night. 

Nobody has wanted to see Everett Golson morph into a turnover machine these past few weeks. But if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to handle adversity (note to Jameis Winston, this is the type of adversity we enjoy writing about), Golson has been nearly perfect in the week since his sloppy game against North Carolina nearly helped the Tar Heels pull the upset.

It started Saturday evening, when after the Irish’s 50-43 victory, Golson spoke candidly to the assembled media.

“I think I said it earlier, but I come in here kind of every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job,” Golson said. “Right now, it’s time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that.”

According to head coach Brian Kelly, Golson took that focus to the practice field, where he was sharp all week as the undoubted leader of the Irish offense. It also helped that the coaching staff found new drills to help focus the attention of their quarterback on ball security, with Matt LaFleur bringing in a specialized football that helped Golson work on pressure-point, ball carrying technique.

On Wednesday afternoon, Golson was asked repeatedly about his recent rash of turnovers, and how they’ll likely be the determining factor in Saturday night’s football game. It forced the quarterback to make a proclamation that isn’t necessarily bulletin-board material, but a strong statement nonetheless.

“It’s to a point where you get just kind of fed up. I think that’s where I am,” Golson said. “And I’m definitely not going to turn it over.”

Don’t expect Notre Dame’s quarterback to all of a sudden show up in Tallahassee in a white fur coat like Namath. But the fact that Golson has had to endure multiple weeks of questions has clearly gotten to the Irish’s premiere playmaker.

“Everett’s at the point where he’s tired of being the center of the question,” Kelly said Thursday. “He’s tired of answering the question about turnovers.”

But if there’s another development this week that should have Irish fans happy, it’s that Golson also took some time to look inward. While there are things he can do to combat turnovers (and they’ll be necessary to beat Florida State), Golson also had to get his mojo back.

As we talked about here, Golson wasn’t playing like the quarterback we’ve seen against North Carolina. The natural instincts he’s displayed taking over football games were replaced by a football player trying to do the right thing or make the correct read.

On Saturday night, Golson’s going to have to be the artist who just understands the game, not a college kid trying to play the position assignment correct.

“I have to remain who I am. That’s what has gotten me to this point,” Golson said. “I don’t want to try to be somebody I’m not. It’s a fine line.”

 

It’s important every week. But Saturday night’s battle in the trenches will be critical. 

Both head coaches had nothing but good things to say about their opponent’s offensive line. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher was relatively succinct.

“Big offensive line. Very good up front,” Fisher said.

Kelly went into a bit more detail, remembering a young group that has grown up since the Champs Sports Bowl.

“One of the best offensive lines I’ve seen in some time,” Kelly said. “I remember going against them three years ago, it was a freshman laden, young offensive line, extremely talented.  Now it’s a veteran group.  So I think that that’s probably what really stands out to me.”

With the pleasantries out of the way, Notre Dame needs to win both sides of this matchup to take down the Seminoles on Saturday. And one big matchup to watch is the one over center, where Jarron Jones will lineup against Ryan Hoefeld.

Hoefeld was shaky after replacing starter Austin Barron, entering the game against Wake Forest and making a few bad shotgun snaps and drawing a holding penalty. Matched up against Jones, the Irish have a chance to collapse the pocket and win at the point of attack, forcing a relatively weak Florida State running game to be non-existent.

Hoefeld played better against Syracuse, but Jones has shown flashes of great play this season when it was demanded. Consider this one of those times.

Flipping to the other side of the ball, Notre Dame is going to have to be able to establish the line of scrimmage and a corresponding ground game. While much has been made about the lack of pass rushers on the Irish roster, the Seminoles have just eight sacks in their six games, good for 107th in the country.

We’ve seen Notre Dame’s ground game get better in recent weeks. And while Desmond Howard spent Friday morning on SportsCenter saying that the Irish couldn’t run the ball, his colleagues at ESPN, Lou Holtz and Danny Kanell disagreed.

““I think Notre Dame can run the ball and protect the passer. I’m not sure Florida State can,” Holtz said, not all that surprisingly.

“I would agree in the trenches, Notre Dame has an advantage,” Kanell said. “Florida State has struggled mightily running the football, and that is one area where Notre Dame can absolutely go toe to toe with Florida State.”

 

As the college football world evolves, both Notre Dame and Florida State are on the cutting edge of technology. 

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick has done a lot of things for Notre Dame. He’s currently in the middle of making sure that the Irish get ahead in the world of sports performance.

While a lot of this week has focused on the differences between these two programs, both Florida State and Notre Dame have made a commitment to utilizing their resources — and technology — to bettering their teams. For Florida State, an Australian-based Catapult system was credited as the X-Factor in their BCS title run.

Now Notre Dame is experimenting with that same system, and it’s already paid dividends this season. The Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Hine explains.

After a promising summer camp, Brown’s first three games yielded disappointing results: only four receptions for 35 yards. He was healthy. He just wasn’t producing at the level he and the coaches expected.

“We were kind of like, what’s happened here?” coach Brian Kelly told the Tribune.

Kelly turned to data from a product the Irish are trying out — a GPS-oriented device called the OptimEye. In that data, Kelly solved the mystery: Brown was tense, and his technique was slacking.

Kelly has outfitted Notre Dame’s receivers this season with the cellphone-sized device, which they wear on their backs during games and practices. The device mixes dozens of data points — such as speed, distance, acceleration, torque, impact of getting hit, movement of body parts — in an algorithm to calculate a “player load,” which essentially measures how much a player is working.

Brown’s player load was consistently half that of the other receivers. That number led Kelly to the film, where he found the solution.

“It wasn’t a matter of him not working,” Kelly said. “He was dragging his feet. He was really tight and he wasn’t fluid like the other guys.”

Since the discovery, Brown has 12 catches for 147 yards, including a key touchdown against Stanford.

During a preseason media session with strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo, I asked him about the use of systems like Catapult. He said that he and Kelly had kicked the tires on it, but hadn’t committed to it yet, though acknowledged other programs at Notre Dame were utilizing the system. That’s obviously changed, or the veteran strength coach was being coy, no sin for a program looking for every opportunity to get ahead.

So as the Irish build their baseline results this season with their new system, a funny thing happened along the way. They’ve leaned on Florida State, who actually has helped the Irish staff understand the data.

 

“We cheated. We called Florida State,” Kelly told Hine. “We didn’t know what the numbers meant and they did.”

 

 

Last year, Florida State’s defense was statistically dominant. This year’s unit is still finding its way.  

In preseason camp, a look at the Seminoles roster had you wondering if Jimbo Fisher had built a dream team. But on the defensive side of the ball, Florida State has not lived up to the precedent set by the national champs.

Through six games, the Seminoles are still learning on the job. While injuries and attrition have forced a minor rebuild, the numbers have reflected a unit that has taken a fairly large step backwards.

Warchant.com broke down the numbers through six games, comparing last year’s defense to the one Notre Dame will face. Let’s take a look:

FSU D: 2013 vs. 2014
Points per game: 
12.3 to 20.7
Yards per game: 285 to 359
Rush yards per game: 127 to 145
Pass yards per game: 158 to 214
Sacks: 14 to 8
Third down defense: 30.1% to 44.2%

Across the board, the numbers have dropped, some quite significantly. So while the Seminoles’ personnel still reads like a Rivals.com All-Star team, there are opportunities to be had against first-year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly’s unit.

 

Another Saturday, another game where red zone play is critical. 

After a perfect day in the red zone helped the Irish offense escape North Carolina, Saturday night’s battle inside the 20s will likely dictate who exits the game 7-0.

The Seminoles are the No. 2 team in the country when it comes to scoring in the red zone. They’re cashed in 28 of 29 opportunities, a perfect marriage between a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and Robert Aguayo, a Lou Groza-winning kicker.

The Irish have been no slouches in the red zone, scoring on 89 precent of their opportunities. And the Irish have actually turned more of their chances into six points, scoring one more touchdown in one less scoring attempt.

 

But the Irish offense is up against a Seminoles defense that’s played very good in the red zone. Florida State ranks No. 10 in the country, giving up scores on just 68 percent of opportunities. They’ve limited touchdowns well, ranked No. 11 in limiting opponents to less than six points. That’s the biggest statistical gulf in this breakdown, with the Irish ranked No. 63 in the country stopping red zone touchdowns.

While Bob Diaco’s defenses thrived in the red zone, Brian VanGorder’s young unit has yet to show that resiliency. But against a Seminoles team that does exceptionally well in the scoring areas, the Irish will need to find a way to win that battle.

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There isn’t much good to say about Jameis Winston — and Florida State’s treatment of his situation — off the field. But the defending Heisman Trophy winner might be college football’s best player, and he presents a challenge like few others Saturday night. 

I’ll let others make the Good vs. Evil parallels. And while from afar it looks as if the Seminoles athletic department needs to clean house and reexamine how it views football, that’s a story that’s been talked about enough this week, leaving the problematic matchup with Jameis Winston on the field woefully under-discussed.

A year after putting together one of the historically great seasons the sport has ever seen, Grantland’s Matt Hinton probably summed it up best:

As long as he is on the field, though, Winston remains arguably the most indispensable player in the nation. With him, Florida State is a substantial favorite to win every game it plays and repeat as national champion. Without him, Florida State is just another Top 25 team trying to keep its head above water with a three-star quarterback, a mediocre running game, and a suddenly vulnerable defense. Either way, the remainder of the 2014 season will be shaped more indelibly by Winston’s game than by anyone else’s, whether due to his presence or his absence.

For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll have to do something that nobody has managed to yet: Beat Jameis Winston.

At 19-0 as a starting quarterback, another win Saturday would make him the first FBS quarterback since 2000 to start his career 20-0.

So for all the headlines about autographs, crab legs, BB guns, and things far more detestable, this is the best quarterback Kelly and the Irish have faced since Andrew Luck and an offense that’s far more explosive and dangerous than any other.

“They’re not going to let you just line up and blitz him and have at him,” Kelly said, when asked about Jimbo Fisher and what the Seminoles do that makes the so difficult to defend. “They know how to protect their offense. They’ve got two guys on the perimeter that can flat out fly… You have to be smart and you have to pick your spots.”

That means another difficult task for Brian VanGorder and his young Irish defense. And while the general sentiment of sending the house early and often has been a popular water-cooler defensive strategy, Kelly knows it’ll take much more than that.

“We know what we’re facing. Brian knows we can’t walk in there and say, hey, we’re going to blitz them. We’ve got 87 different blitzes,” Kelly said. “We’ll get crushed if that’s what we do. We’ve got to mix it up. We’ve got to be smart. We’ve got to be really, really good against the run, especially on first down. If we do a good job there, keep them off balance, we have to score on offense and play really good special teams, we can win the game.”